Facebook SEO: Ranking Signal or New Search Engine?

Andrea Fryrear on SEO

The impact of social signals on Google’s algorithm (or their complete absence from it) has been a point of contentious discussion for years.

Matt Cutts has both confirmed and denied the impact of social media interactions on search results, and the entire discussion tends to devolve into a debate about whether pages rank well because they have lots of social shares, or they rank well so< they have lots of social shares.

Google’s general unwillingness to share its algorithm’s inner workings with the rest of the class probably means that we aren’t going to settle this discussion anytime in the near future.

But what we can explore is how our behavior on Facebook might be impacting our pages’ SEO destiny.

I propose that even without direct causation proven we can get benefit from Facebook activity, with the added bonus that Facebook itself is starting to behave more and more like a search engine.

Welcome to the next phase of your Facebook SEO.

Why Facebook Isn’t a Huge Google Ranking Signal

The 2015 Moz rankings report shows these correlations, but remember that we don’t know if these pages rank better because of their performance on Facebook, or if pages that rank well are just more likely to be shared on Facebook:

social seo factors

So let’s take a look at these problems with basing SEO strategy in Facebook, along with exactly what this should mean for our strategy on this social network.

Facebook SEO Problem #1: Google Can’t Crawl It Consistently

In a 2014 video Matt Cutts references the fact that their bots were blocked “for about a month” from crawling one of the social media sites, making them “hesitate to use them as a strong signal.”

Would you base your tool’s capabilities on information that might dry up at any time? Probably not, and neither will Google.

This means that until Facebook takes down some of its walls it won’t ever be a significant driver of search rankings. And, as it continues to develop its own internal search and content creation capabilities that are aimed at creating its own autonomous universe, this seems like an unlikely possibility.

What to Do:Follow Google’s lead. Use Facebook as a minor ranking factor, but not the ultimate driver of your SEO strategy. Remember that you don’t own this channel either, and it could change on you literally overnight. Facebook’s job is to make itself money, not market your business.

What to Also Do: Remember that Facebook drives more traffic than Google in some cases, and respect that volume. Consider treating Facebook like a second search engine (more on this later).

Facebook SEO Problem #2: Lots of Ways to Engage on Facebook

If I “Like” something on Facebook, does it mean that it’s more important to me than if I comment on it? How about if I click on the link a post contains but don’t share it all? Each person’s behavior is based on so many factors that it’s basically impossible to answer those questions.

For Google, that means it’s currently impossible to quantify someone’s behavior on Facebook in a way that would even allow it to incorporate that behavior into their algorithm.

A 2013 analysis conducted by Stone Temple Consulting seemed to reveal that a high number (800+) of Likes didn’t help a page’s rank, nor did it get the page crawled. Their attempt to quantify the results of sharing was not so conclusive, but the unlinked pages they experimented on weren’t even crawled based on the Facebook shares.

For marketers, this seems to mean that we need to focus our energies on a little bit of reverse engineering rather than just working on individual interactions with individual posts.

Instead of trying to trick and cajole our fans into interacting with our posts with click bait or contests, we need to check out the kinds of content that has strong Facebook engagement of all kinds and emulate it.

If you’re getting shares, clicks, and conversions from Facebook along with some better SEO results, it doesn’t really matter to you which of these outcomes influenced the other.

What to Do:Be engaging, not sneaky. Consider the types of content you interact with on Facebook, and try to focus on sharing that.

Rand Fishkin puts it nicely in a Whiteboard Friday from January, 2015:

Facebook’s likes and shares are very indicative of the kinds of content that tend to perform well in search. So if we can nail that, if we understand what kind of content gets spread socially on the web and engages people on the social web, we tend to also perform well in the kind of content we create for search engines.

Remember that social can be a longer sell cycle, particular for B2B marketing, so put on your patient pants and look for opportunities to create authentic connections with your audience.

What to Also Do: Keep in mind that while social interactions themselves may not impact rank directly, “links published on social media could be marked as credible backlinks and thus influence a page’s rank.”

Share your links on social, share other people’s links, and be genuinely grateful when others share yours.

Facebook SEO Problem #3: Authority Changes & Is Hard to Measure

Influencers rise and fall like the tide, and this is even more true for “regular” social profiles that are significant but not gargantuan. Google hasn’t yet dialed in how to weight someone’s social media popularity and reach, but that doesn’t mean they won’t.

While it seems that “the authority of a social account doesn’t impact search rank” right now, Matt Cutts has hinted that identity and authority are likely to become more significant ranking factors in the next 10 years.

For now influencers help us extend the reach of our marketing messages and lend credibility to our brand, but their shares may become increasingly impactful as time goes on.

With Google returning tweets in search results they are almost certainly going to be making authoritative profiles more prominent than those with minimal followers and shares.

What to Do: Ten years is a long time. See if you can’t become an influencer by then, and then you’ll be able to catapult any page you want right to the top of Google’s search results.

Ok, that probably won’t happen. But you should still strive for genuine interactions and excellent content across Facebook and other social channels to give yourself and the content you share the best chance at getting a rankings bump.

Accept that Facebook Might Become SEO

Facebook’s adoption rate continues to climb, and with its recent moves to host original content and to keep searches within Facebook, it’s clear that there’s a search showdown coming.

Or maybe it’s not so much a “showdown” as an “expansion.”

Regardless of who’s dominating our analytics right now, we all need to be prepared for the possibility that Facebook will be making a play for more searches in the future. It’s a good idea for marketers to get out in front of this possibility by creating and maintaining a presence at the very least, and ideally a community, under the sign of the big blue “F.”

As Neil Patel astutely points out, “Social is the new SEO because social networks themselves function as powerful and widely-used search engines in their own right.”

He goes on to remind us that Facebook’s purpose (at least right now) is “vastly different from Google’s because it is indexing the content and settings of personal and business identities.”

These two purposes may converge, overlap, and coalesce as time goes by. But for the most part our takeaways as marketers remain the same: be the source of genuine useful information, and you’ll be rewarded in search results.